Criticism has changed. Today no one dares set out the differences between master and amateur, between good and bad literature. Publishers don’t want to get involved; they are almost guaranteed to lose money on a good writer, and make money on a bad one. Critics hold their fire, scared of being accused of elitism. Critics have had the rug pulled out from under them in any case. No longer bound by ethics or competence, they don’t even know what they’re supposed to talk about anymore. University literature departments don’t set out the differences – literature has turned into cultural studies in any case. Literary theorists have little to say on the subject – literary theory is on its deathbed, and the offshoot that tried to establish “aesthetic” values long in the grave. Critics writing for daily newspapers don’t set out the differences – they’re poorly paid, and literature doesn’t get much column space in newspapers full-stop. Literary magazines are so few as to be of no use, and when and where they do exist, they are so expensive that bookshops don’t want to stock them. Tracy Emin’s bratty retort – What if I am illiterate? I still have the right to a voice! – is the revolutionary slogan of a new literary age. The only thing that reminds us that literature was once a complex system with in-built institutions – of appraisal, classification, and hierarchy, a system that incorporated literary history, literary theory, literary criticism, schools of literary thought, literary genres, genders, and epochs – are the blurbs that try and place works of contemporary literature alongside the greats of the canon. Vladimir Nabokov is the most blurbable of names. But if so many contemporary books and their authors are Nabokov-like, it just means that literature has become karaoke-like.
More than ever before, the publishing establishment is struggling to remain relevant. Publishers take fewer risks on new authors and the public spends less time reading fiction that isn’t approved by either the mainstream media establishment or, alternatively, the unsophisticated groupthink of social media. Many have heralded the death of literature, but comparatively few have commented on the consequent death rattle of literary criticism.
I came close to completing a double major in English in college (the Government classes were just never as interesting). I spent a significant amount of time exposed to people who still believed in Literature with a capital ‘L’, as well as those who actually worked within the academic literary establishment. I cared enough about literature myself to invest sincere effort in the study of it. What my studies lacked in breadth they made up for in depth. So I graduated with a sense that literature, and the humanities in general, were important. That an education in the liberal arts was not merely a diversion, that it was just as vital as the sciences and business and the professions. Then I went to law school, and since then my intellectual focus has been much narrower and more “practical” — less curious. More and more lately I’m coming to realize that this is not something that pleases me.
I thought that the serious appreciation of literature would intersect naturally with my life — be it from the influence of newspapers or online sources — but I’ve found that not only do I have to seek it out, there’s less of it there, and it’s harder to find.
Ugresic’s point is well taken: it’s not enough to compare something new to something old. That isn’t criticism. It’s not enough to throw around buzz words and lingo; how often do you hear something described as “postmodern” or “deconstructed”? How frequently do you see the word “hermeneutics” thrown into an article? It often seems desperate, a lazy attempt to add sophistication to something that offers no real analysis. And that’s the real lesson, here: shallow is still shallow. Allusion and quick turn of phrase do not literary criticism make.